By the looks on their faces, one might have thought the Missouri State University-West Plains Lady Grizzlies had won the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I Women's National Volleyball Championship Nov. 23 after completing a hard-fought, five-game match against Western Nebraska Community College from Scottsbluff.
Instead, the fourth-seeded Lady Grizzlies (40-9) were happily celebrating their third place finish in the three-day event after defeating the second-seeded Lady Cougars 30-24, 23-30, 30-22, 28-30, 15-12.
"These girls are such great kids. I wanted them to leave on a good memory, especially the sophomores," Lady Grizzly Head Coach Trish Kissiar-Knight said in an interview following the match. "It's so hard to come back and play for third place because it means you didn't quite attain what you wanted to. But I'm so happy for them and so proud of them. I just like these guys so much, I wanted it for them."
Knight did everything she could to help them get it, too. She directed, encouraged, pleaded, threatened, basically covered the gamut of coaching tricks to motivate the Lady Grizzlies to play their best.
"I called a time out in the second game and told them I didn't want to lose this match," she recalled. "They weren't passing well or talking to Candace (Saleaumua), and that makes it hard for a setter to do her job. After that time out, they started talking a little more, Candace began playing better, we served better and we dug more balls."
The Lady Grizzlies' MVP of the match, though, was sophomore outside attacker Courtney Hendrickson, who seemed to take control of the contest on her own to determine its outcome. It was only fitting that the final two points of the match came off her hands.
"Courtney really saved the day," Knight said. "She dug the ball well all night and hit one great ball to get the last kill. You could just see it on her face as we set up that play. She was saying, 'Give me that ball!'" Hendrickson finished the evening leading the team in kills with 20, digs with 24 and points earned with 22.
Freshman middle attacker Joelle Mafo, one of two Lady Grizzlies named to the All-Tournament team, was close behind on offense with 19 kills and 21 points earned. Sophomore outside attacker Amy Lusk had 18 kills and 18 points earned. Defensively, the Lady Grizzlies were led by freshman middle attacker Theresa Caldwell, who racked up nine blocks, including one solo.
Saleaumua, also named to the All-Tournament team, had six blocks and led the team in assists with 54.
"Our blocking at the end really fired us up, too," Knight said. "When you're tired, it's hard to push yourself. You cannot not be tired with the adrenaline you expend in these situations."
Knight also praised Lusk and sophomore libero Bethany Propst for some key plays in the last game that helped the team win.
This was Missouri State-West Plains' seventh consecutive appearance in the three-day tournament. In addition to placing third this year, the Lady Grizzlies have placed second twice, in 2002 and 2003.